THE CAULDRON OF PLENTY – BOOK ONE – FEDLIM’S FAIL
When fable and fact merge – the real story behind the Celtic myth of Conn of a Hundred Battles.
Book One – FEDLIM’S FALL
PROLOGUE – The Otherworld
The pain was beyond exquisite; searingly hot and icy cold, and it slammed into his being with a force that rendered him purely reactive; in a wholly primal state as it surged viciously though his body. And he screamed. And screamed.
Conn found his breath waning and knew he was close, his thoughts disjointed, confused, irrational … the pain … the pain had to be stopped…but how? He had no idea nor was he capable of knowing. He gulped in air as best he could but gurgled blood instead. With enormous effort, he opened his eyes and saw blackness, nothing but blackness, a void, empty, without name. Then he heard the harps, faintly at first, rising and beckoning, ballooning with the air in a death song, slow, melodious and wailing, and he felt the tears stream down his face; it was a lullaby to escort him for the long sleep he now knew he was bound for.
What to think of in this last moment? Visions kaleidoscoped colourlessly, voiceless but moving, of people he’d known in his short life, of things he’d seen, the love he’d seen but never discovered, the joy of life he’d never fully explored as yet – and he was overwhelmed by the sadness of that. He had never unearthed the woman that he’d dreamed of so many times, she was to be tall, lithe, with cascading hair the shade of a young vixen; a bold russet that was as distinctive as it was unusual. And her eyes would be coloured the mysterious green of the deepest sea, ready for the storm, bright with desire, clear but strong, wanting and giving with a generosity that was stunning and only for him. He closed his eyes seeing her for the last time in his mind. A woman warrior with blade and heart, passion and fire with long dark red hair flying proudly like a pennant. Undeniably, he wanted that image to go with him to the Otherworld so he fixed on it hard.
Unexpectedly, his eyelids fluttered. He was inside a hall with several hundred people jostling and shoving each other as they laughed and drank their health with warm honey mead, He knew it would be delicious and thick, it would trickle down the throat as inviting as a pretty girl; he’d been surrounded by friends before to know the feeling well and he sighed. The harps were increasing in voice as the strings lifted the spirits and caressed the soul so warmly, reminding all of the balmy summer days that beckoned, and beseeched even the strongest to linger; to touch and smell the land and to bathe in its glory. He knew, their gentle beckoning was not to be denied.
With a deep and final breath, the warrior in him rebelled at the finality of it. The boy in him despaired at the unfairness of it. The man-to-be simply recognised the pain of death and waited, but not in silence he decided. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs one last time.
His sudden screams were a cacophony of fury, raw and visceral, and they were heard throughout the Otherworld; astounding and terrifying in their intensity as they reverberated above, swirling and swooping with enormous magnitude for all to hear.
Just as suddenly there was silence. People gathered. The crowd grew. Puzzled and uncertain, they leaned forward to see better, to understand what the screaming was about for they’d left pain and heartache behind, those emotions were unknown in this place of warmness and enjoyment.
Five well decorated warriors stood on the platform, mugs in their hands, frowns on their faces, hands stilled by the event about to unfold. Warriors all, they understood pain well, knew its intricacies and demands, had all experienced its power and respected its potential to escalate and also to vanish with their bidding.
The warriors moved to stand beside the body of Conn. They were each distinctively different although each bore the mantle of proud warriorship by their finely twisted golden torcs which glittered in the light of the sconces flaming along the walls of the great hall, illuminating the darkness and shadows beyond.
The oldest warrior glanced at the other four. Gnarled and stooped he was clearly their leader.
“Is this the warrior we have been waiting for?” he asked. His white shawl was gathered over one shoulder and when he shrugged, it fell in elegant folds against the priceless golden brooch that pinned it there. His attire was the same colour as his long carefully braided hair and beard. A vision in whiteness and purity. A bringer of life with no soul when it came to the survival of his nation.
“I suspect it is.”
The second warrior blinked and silently wondered why the boy was being delivered now for he was a fledging warrior and would be of use in the future, surely? His eyes glanced at the gaping wounds, carefully noting their demands of his healing abilities. Ready as always. And calm. Belenus was just awaiting the word to begin his work.
The largest warrior, Lugh, was totally attired in black, like his totem, the raven. His habit was to state his view for all to see and acclaim. Mostly it was accepted for his presence was strong, he knew it and dressed for it; power was his goal, leadership of the gods was his birthright and he was getting impatient for its coming. He cannily saw how he could make this a challenge as was his increasing wont. He lifted his eyes, raised his brows as if he was considering something important which he was. Briefly, glancing at the fourth and smallest warrior he wagered on the outcome of his words and smiled like he had just won an important prize despite it not being so as yet.
“We may decide if we accept or reject his coming…” Lugh glanced at the third warrior looking for support and found it in his hooded dark eyes and rejoiced silently. “I say we accept him, what say you, Oghma?”
Running a hand over his beard, Oghma nodded in agreement for he swiftly understood Lugh was laying down a challenge and was interested to see the outcome, after all they were warriors, they had spent many season living by their swords and the temptation to resume was always strong.
“We could not have any physical expectations of one so sorely injured despite Belenus’s healing skills. He should enter the Otherworld, I say,” declared Lugh.
The healer went to speak but was silenced by the oldest’s raised hand as he looked carefully at his four warriors. The Dagha knew they were powerful and all had ambitions but lately Lugh had become restless in his frustration at not claiming his future as quickly as expected. The Dagha was intelligent enough to recognise the cause, he had already well decided, he would wait until one was ready, and none were yet. The old man smiled at them, but ensured his expression held no warmth, only a mild interest in the clear challenge Lugh had issued.
The Dagha watched the one female warrior among the group of four for Lugh’s challenge was directed at her. Lugh had challenged her heart, of which he had none. The woman was exceptionally beautiful, of medium height, wearing a long thick blonde plait secured by golden binds. She was well rounded with feminine charms holding her purple tunic and trousers enticingly and which also hid her weapons so others would think her unarmed. She was never to be underestimated as was the others wont.
Bridgit held Lugh in her gaze for a very long moment before she replied, just three words, her voice was firm but feminine, and it held a power the others recognised as their own but didn’t always see in a woman. “I say no.”
The Dagma showed nil expression but smiled inwardly. She had accepted Lugh’s challenge and he knew, just as Lugh and Oghma did, it would come with grief, anger and violence – such boys he thought. His intention was to restrict the damage.
“I am not sure his death will be a bad thing,” The Dagha said but it sounded like a vague question. He often did that when he should have stated firmly – a noted peacemaker who preferred consensus to confrontation, a ruse he knew well. The others looked at him blandly, expecting he would eventually come to his own opinion when he’d canvassed the others first and saw where it was going. Despite his apparent indecisiveness, he knew very well how to use his authority. Customarily, his face showed little concern; he was not one to let emotion drive his decisions, he preferred it that way but they all realised there had been more than one challenge offered by Lugh that would not go unanswered this day.
“It well may be, Dagha….” added Belenus anxiously as he peered into Conn’s face with furrowed eyebrows that were as thick and dense as the bark from an old tree. “Mayhap it is not done yet, I believe I can save him.”
“How say we of this boy, called Conn?” The Dagha asked Bridgit who was standing beside him. “A vote,” his eyes grazed the four warriors before any could answer. “Two in favour of accepting the boy into the Otherworld…” He noted Lugh’s and Oghma’s agreeable expressions. “And two against.” Belenus would never accept a boy’s death if he could save him, and Bridgit had stated her case already. All nodded to his words.
“There is a young girl who has been searching in her scrying fire for this boy for a whole moon’s passing for I’ve sent the sights to her.” Pausing Bridgit looked at The Dagha, “She is very gifted father, a priestess and would-be queen of her tribes in a future time when there is need of such, indeed the one person who can bring the nation of Eire together for what it once was.”
The Dagha looked at his daughter intentionally keeping his expression blank. “She is not of Eire, Bridgit. Can you see this, all of you?” he asked the surrounding warriors enticing them into his game for his daughter was not the only one who could see into the future. “That Eire will require binding in seasons to come when it is so closely held now?”
“There will be a time in the not too distant future, Dagha, when the country will be split by war,” stated Lugh as the instigator of the increasing unrest. “For the drums are beating already.”
“And the healers are amassing,” added Belenus whose fingers were hovering over the boy’s injuries.
“So does Eire require binding and will this boy be the one to achieve it?” The Dagha repeated, noting that Oghma stayed silent.
“No,” stated Lugh clearly.
“We are evenly split.” Oghma eventually spoke, standing to his full imposing height. A massive man who most fell away from in fear even if these warriors did not. One who took his own counsel despite his encouragement of Lugh’s games. “Do you cast the deciding vote, Dagha?”
The Dadga allowed a smile to fleetingly touch his lips again. “No.”
His eyes sought those of his daughter’s. She held them firmly for he expected no less. “The healer heals so his vote is always cast against death.” There was a long moment of silence. “Whereas daughter, your vote is the dissenting one. As such you will be required to defend it.”
Bridgit drew herself up, womanly and tall. “I am always ready to defend my decisions and words father, for you expect it, however in this instance, I ask; why?”
The Dagha stepped forward, his gaze as flinty as the rocks struck for flame but his voice soft and caressing like the touch of a butterfly; all the more concerning for those who knew him well.
“I expect all decisions made by my warriors to be defended.” His eyes pierced each one of them in turn knowing they would take his meaning. “You expect to inherit power yet you know not of the repercussions of your decisions until many seasons have passed. If you are not prepared to defend them with your heart and soul now, those decisions are not sound and you are not eligible to lead any nation much less one so great as Eire.” He walked forward to look more closely at the body of Conn.
“Belenus, prevent this boy from entering the Otherworld until the warriors have finished with their swords.”
Belenus’s already itchy fingers found his short dagger and he sliced Conn’s tunic from his chest exposing the gaping wounds there. Grimacing, he began chanting as his fingers worked the edges of the wounds together, the soft flesh bulging with blood and seeping it over the boy’s chest onto the trestle that held him. Reaching under his tunic the healer found linen which he staunched the flow and unasked, women approached with water, herbs, ointments and elixirs for healing and they began their work in earnest keeping their voices low.
Ignoring the healer, the Dagha continued. “Lugh and Oghma will challenge Bridgit who is defending her decision and the winner will have the final say on whether the boy Conn shall live or die.”
There was a gasp from the surrounding crowd who had pushed in closer to hear and see the work of the healer. Now the crowd separated and stepped back to the edges of the hall. The musicians allowed their harps to dance their own tunes while the mead flowed and the noise began to gain momentum when the crowd realised there was a fight about to commence.
Bridgit had not moved, she was well armed under her tunic and it was well disguised so she may have an element of surprise in her favour yet. Both Lugh and Oghma had swords thrust into their hands by onlookers and she knew that the time for thinking had arrived for she would never win hand-to-hand combat with two such gifted and famous warriors. She drew a long deep breath, while silently beseeching the goddesses favouring her to assist her now if they believed Conn should live to save Eire from an unknown fate. She felt a shiver pass through her body and began to chant, and she kept chanting as she began to swirl and move in an unexpected dance, her eyes wide open.
Lugh and Oghma had separated, they each stood to one side of her in opposite directions so she would have to defend both attacks which would be impossible and thus ensure their win. While she was whirling and chanting they had both drawn their swords into the attack position but she was too quick dancing hither and yon around the warriors for either of them to land a blow. Lugh stabbed at her flying back as she spun towards Ogham swirling her tunic at his face, blurring his vision of her. Lugh stepped closer and lunged again unsuccessfully as she slipped past.
Bridgit slid her left hand into her tunic and removed her short sword from its leather scabbard. It had been melted, hammered and honed by the blacksmith god, Creidhne himself, filled with magic, beautiful and balanced, inscribed with ancient symbols, blessed by the Dagha and given to protect and serve her. It was one of a pair. She slowed as she saw she’d enticed Lugh closer to Ogham and with a deft twirl, and she came behind the two to confront the larger warrior who parried his sword with hers.
The tip of Ogham’s long steel met the hilt of her short blade, once, twice and thrice as the weapons clashed loudly and the crowd cheered. Bridgit knew that Lugh would be impatient, waiting for a killing blow while she tarried with Ogham who seemed in no hurry to end the sport for he was filled with patience and curiosity as to her manoeuvres knowing his strength would always win out.
She spun again, this time her right hand found her other short sword and with her hands twirling above her head, moving down, up again, blurring in their speed as she spun and leaped about amid her flowing tunic, and the harps began to sing faster in time with her movement until it all became a blur of purple with the glint of steel winking within.
With a mighty roar, Lugh lunged, this time the end of his sword found her tunic and ripped it from her arm and much to his fury, she smiled as she slashed her blades towards him. He stepped back and Ogham stepped forward. They were facing each other with her in the centre. Lugh laughed, it was not a nice sound, and his raven flapped overhead with excitement. The crowd suddenly stilled for they recognised that the end was near and that Lugh was preparing the killing blow. He snatched his hand back to release his mighty arm with his sword lifted at Bridit’s head while she watched calmly within her dancing.
Lugh was strong but she was quicker. Realising this was her only opportunity, and brandishing blades in both her hands, just as Lugh lunged forward, she spun behind Ogham, for his gaze was momentarily fixed on Lugh, and as he turned his head back toward her, she held one short sword against his neck and the other into the middle of his back. Ogham stilled knowing she held him captive.
Caught unawares of Brigit’s ploy, Lugh’s sword missed Brigit’s head for she had moved a heartbeat earlier but as Ogham had turned back to Bridgit he was very closely in her place as Lugh’s sword thundered past his head. Ogham’s eyes showed a look of surprise that neither had taken Lugh’s killing blow for injury.
Lugh’s fury was obvious, he pulled himself up, his sword tip quivering as he held it clear and he let out a bellow that sent his raven flying for the rafters.
Ogham’s face registered anger while his breath was heavy in the sudden quiet of the room. Brigit held him hostage and the Dagha nodded, approving of her tactic for he too knew Ogham being the thinker of the two men would not fight her to the death using his sheer strength but rather acknowledge her betterment of him for he valued his honour and that of others who displayed it also.
But Lugh had no such qualms for there were no hostages in his world worth keeping alive. Without further thought and with a massive grunt he drove his mighty sword arm towards Ogham to finish his downstroke in his death and hoped he would injure Brigit in the process for then he’d be able to kill her.
Then there was a mighty scream from the surrounding crowd as they realised Lugh was to kill his comrade but before he could do so, the Dagha stood between them, stilling Lugh’s sword. No one considered how the old man found the speed to move the distance from his vantage point into the fight, but later the crowd would marvel at the feat.
The Dagha raised an arm. His cloak fell elegantly from his shoulders and his demeanour was unruffled as was his so carefully braided hair and beard.
“Stop,” he demanded quietly.
TO BE CONTINUED … Want to read more ? Let me know!